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October 1998

Blended Agents Improve Call Center Productivity


As technology makes information retrieval simpler and faster, and the number of consumers doing business over the phone increases daily, the call center has become a mainstay across industry lines. Large call centers normally consist of agents trained to take inbound calls and other agents trained to make outgoing calls. Smaller call centers, however, often lack the resources to maintain large inbound and outbound staffs, and do not have the call volume to justify them. Call centers of all sizes desire to increase agent productivity and improve the customer contact experience. The question then becomes, how do you staff a call center for peak volumes and still maintain productivity during slower times?

An approach by which organizations might maximize their call center agent's skills and time is to integrate both inbound and outbound teleservices, or what is referred to as call blending.

At its simplest, call blending refers to using inbound agents to place outbound calls or using an outbound agent to receive inbound calls. For example, a sales organization should consider call blending when inbound agents are idle waiting for calls and can be used for outbound campaigns. Another example is in collections, where the probability for success depends considerably on receiving inbound calls between placing outbound calls.

Many inbound call centers have fairly consistent daily call volume patterns. When a customer service center is swamped with callers first thing in the morning, blending allows pools of agents to alternate between incoming and outgoing calls in response to peaks and lulls. These patterns can be tied into the call center's predictive dialer campaign, as most dialers utilize complex pacing algorithms that allow dynamic adjustment to changes in the environment by monitoring the answered call queue and system parameters for each agent group. As inbound call activity changes, the system automatically adjusts the pace of outbound dialing to keep answered calls at the desired level. Full agent utilization and faster response to customers are the key items.

A Call Blending Scenario
Your company is gearing up for a major telemarketing campaign to introduce a new product to your preferred customers. You've had quality issues with temporary help, so rather than hire temporary workers to staff the campaign, you would like to maximize your existing, relatively small, well-trained staff.

Your company has multiple call centers that handle telephone orders, customer service issues, outbound telemarketing and collections. Some agents have skill sets and personalities that lend themselves exclusively to a particular function. Others are more adaptable, and therefore have been identified as blended agents. These agents will be primarily responsible for their inbound operations, but during lulls, the predictive dialer program will send an indicator to the agents that they are now in "outbound" mode and ring their phones. A CTI link will trigger the outbound script to run on their terminal for navigation through the contact session. Once a call is terminated, an agent will either continue in outbound mode, or resume inbound operations, depending on the call volume in the inbound ACD queue. Your company can expect the system to provide a return on investment in a relatively short period of time, due to savings realized from higher agent productivity and the elimination of the need for temporary help.

Other Blended Agent Scenarios
Overflow management is another prime candidate for a blended agent scenario. Typically, supervisors identify agents in training and reserve them for peak connect periods. This overflow time can be utilized to transfer callers to a blended agent, thereby reducing caller wait times.

Another simple scenario is re-directing e-mail to blended agents. With the advent of more Web-enabled applications, customer service or telemarketing e-mail requests can be directed to an available agent, as opposed to being placed in a separate queue. This is important because most call centers have not integrated their Web and telephony operations, and e-mail response is a lower priority than answering inbound callers in queue. The scenario involves a custom CTI application providing idle agents with the capability of viewing, researching and responding to an e-mail request.

Blended agent capability can be used in a disaster recovery scenario as well. Assume a fire shuts down your company's order processing call center. Rather then playing a recorded message and turning away potential orders, your callers can be diverted to another call center that is in the midst of a telemarketing campaign. These agents can process orders as they arrive and continue the telemarketing campaign as time permits. Most important, your customers can continue to contact your company and place their product orders.

Key Features Of A Blended Environment
Ideally, the call blending system should utilize all existing resources (both CTI and non-CTI) including the ACD and PBX. The agent and group status should be displayed in real-time. As the inbound call volume fluctuates, the agents are automatically transferred between inbound ACD queues and outbound calling lists. Sharing resources eliminates agent idle time and improves the quality of customer contacts through better management of hold times.

Scripting is an important item for agents in a blended environment. Agents who primarily process inbound calls may be uncomfortable in an outbound telemarketing role. Therefore, a clear, effective script can help the agent develop a consistent and productive dialog with the customer.

One item that may be overlooked in a blended environment is recall management. Callbacks that are scheduled by a blended agent must not be "lost in the mix." If originating agent callback is required, the systems should be sophisticated enough to manage that, otherwise it becomes the responsibility of the call center supervisor.

Many small outbound call centers do not have sophisticated predictive dialers. In such a case, the answer may be an IVR or CTI custom application that triggers a dialer (of any type) to allow the inbound agent to participate in an outbound collections or telemarketing campaign. This "blended agent screen pop with a script" is a powerful and cost-effective approach for the smaller call center.

The Reality Of A Blended Environment
There are a number of questions that need to be answered prior to embarking on an integrated inbound/outbound call center implementation. Some are strategic, most are extremely tactical in nature, and any one of these items that is not completely addressed could derail the entire project. Some of the major questions are:

  • Agent Skill Sets: Do you have agents capable of being blended agents? All agents are not created equal, and an excellent collections agent may fail as a telemarketer.
  • Agent Reporting: Can you view the agent's activity in a combined report? How do a blended agent's statistics map into a dedicated group activity report? Real-time ACD reporting packages can be extremely useful in this environment.
  • Supervision: How do you supervise blended agents? This can lead to issues if policies and procedures are not clearly detailed up front.
  • Integration: What integration efforts are required? The ACD should support a CTI link that broadcasts agent and queue status to the predictive dialer. This enables the dialer to evaluate the situation and assign agents to inbound calls. In addition, the ACD must be able to report this information back to the dialer for consolidating reports.
  • Agent/Customer Perception: What systems need to be integrated to realize seamless blended capability? The integration between the dialer, the ACD and any CTI programs should be tight and, from the customer perspective, transparent. The agent needs an indicator to distinguish between inbound and outbound.

The Future Of Blended Call Centers
As technology improves, the future of integrated call centers appears promising. The growth of this capability depends, to an extent, upon the cooperation of the vendor community in providing complete solutions for call centers in a cost-effective manner, with integrations that work in real-world call center environments.

In summary, call blending is typically cost-justifiable as it directly impacts the number of abandoned calls, lowers queue times and increases agent productivity. The line between inbound and outbound call centers will continue to blur and, as long as the agents have the skills to perform in both environments, the number of integrated inbound/outbound call centers will continue to increase.

Brian Kuberski is the director of Product Management at Cortelco Systems, Inc.


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